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How to start swimming as an adult


Most Americans, 85%, say they can swim, according to survey data from the American Red Cross. But can they swim well enough to save themselves? Maybe not. The Red Cross has a list of five basic water safety and swimming skills that can prevent drowning. And only a little over half of survey respondents said they could do all five. Marielle Segarra, host the host of NPR's Life Kit, is going to walk us through those skills now with the help of an Olympic swimmer.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: Yes. I am getting an assist today from Cullen Jones, who actually nearly drowned when he was 5.

CULLEN JONES: At the age of 5, I nearly drowned. It took me five different teachers until I started feeling comfortable with the water.

SEGARRA: He went on to swim in two Olympics, winning four medals, and he's the first African American to hold a swimming world record. Now it's his mission to make sure people know how to swim well.

JONES: We really need to change this thought of swimming is just a great sport, which it is. It's also a life skill.

SEGARRA: OK. About those five survival swimming skills, the first one on the Red Cross' list - you should be able to submerge yourself underwater - that's over your head - to be comfortable enough to do that but also to know how to do it safely, whether you're stepping in or jumping in. If you are jumping, you need to be very careful. And it's important to understand the depth of the water, whether you're entering a pool, a lake or the ocean.

JONES: You see people jumping off rocks. You see people jumping off all of these different platforms. We've seen people become unbelievably injured from that.

SEGARRA: Skill No. 2 - you should be able to return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute. You can do that by sculling. That's where you move your arms and legs back and forth to stay above water. In a swim lesson, you would learn how to scull in a way that conserves energy.

JONES: One of the biggest things about, you know, treading water and also floating is taking in a deep breath. When you take in that deep breath, your lungs, at that point, essentially become a buoy.

SEGARRA: That's a helpful trick when you need a break from sculling. The third skill is to be able to turn around in a full circle and find an exit. And the fourth is to swim 25 yards to that exit without stopping. If you're like me and can't picture a yard, standard pools in the U.S. are 25 yards long.

JONES: So the pool that you're thinking of in your head, that's probably a 25-yard pool.

SEGARRA: Lastly, you should be able to get out of the water without using a ladder.

JONES: I have a 3-year-old and I yell it to him every time he tries to get out now that he's really good at it. But it's elbow, elbow, tummy, knee, knee, elbow, elbow. So you're putting your both of your elbows up on the surface, lifting yourself up to your stomach, so you're halfway out. And then you're trying to bring your knee up, one knee up and then the other knee up. And then you should be able to stand up at that point.

SEGARRA: If you don't have these skills, why not sign up for a swim lesson? You can go to and search for lessons using your zip code.

JONES: And you can, for some people, get those lessons for low cost or no cost. It's just about doing the research and finding what your local pool is providing.

SEGARRA: On day one of lessons, you might want to bring goggles, a swim cap or a nose clip if one of your big concerns is water going up your nose. And of course, that cute bathing suit. Where'd you get it, by the way? Also, try to have fun during the lessons and think about all the cool things you'll get to do once you're a confident swimmer - water aerobics, surf lessons, splashing around with your kid. It's worth taking the time. For NPR News, I'm Marielle Segarra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marielle Segarra
Marielle Segarra is a reporter and the host of NPR's Life Kit, the award-winning podcast and radio show that shares trustworthy, nonjudgmental tips that help listeners navigate their lives.